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Dignity of Labor

By Arthur J. Miller

Is there dignity in labor? It seems the mass media thinks not, for the working stiff is portrayed as dull and a natural-born loser. Hell, in this society those who have it made and are seen as the finest of citizens are the folks who have us natural-born losers making them rich. The bosses see no dignity in labor, and they let us know that by dehumanizing us at the point of production. In their eyes we are less than the machines, because the machines have investment value. We don't even have that value, because if one of us breaks down there are other losers out there ready to replace us.

So many folks don't understand that the verbal abuse we workers put up with is part of a long-standing process to dehumanize us into accepting the idea that we are somehow inferior to the bosses. This process seeks to strip us of our dignity as human beings. This dehumanization has become as much a part of a job as is picking up a tool and using it. Many just accept it as a part of having a job.

I have always been a bit of a rebellious worker and I maintain my dignity by either standing up to the abuse, or every time a boss abuses me I make sure that it costs him in his pocketbook. I once hit a town with most of my stake used up so I had to take any kind of job I could. The only job I could find was washing dishes at a local restaurant. I had a real asshole for a boss who at every opportunity would find a way to take his shit out on me.

I did not say anything back because I wanted to get a little stake out of that job before I moved on. Every time he would open his trap and send shit flying my direction I made sure that it would cost him money. The oven was in the back and one day I turned up the heat and burnt the hell out of his ham for the lunch special. Not only did it burn the hell out of that ham, but he thought there was something wrong with the oven and called in someone to repair it. He baked some cakes and had them cooling and I made sure that when he pulled the cake pan off the cakes would crumble into useless pieces. I poured salt in the soup and so on. I got to the point of having so many ideas on how to cost him money that I looked forward to his trash talking.

One day, when he went out the front door to look at something going on, I went to the side doors and locked them and turned the sign around to say "Closed."

At lunchtime most of the customers came in the side doors. When he discovered it, he thought he forgot to open those doors in the morning and he was babbling about it the rest of the day. The nice thing about that particular trick was that I had a lot fewer dishes to wash.

The damn fool never had any idea that I was the source of his problems. I was just that lower life form out back washing dishes. I had about all I wanted for a stake and one day he made the mistake of telling me that he was going to stick me in the trashcan with the rest of the trash. I got right up into his face and in very vivid detail explained to him what I would do to him were he to ever lay a hand on me. Then I went into a rant about the class struggle. At first he turned red with anger, but then he turned white as a ghost. I wondered if he was going to have a heart attack. At one point he started to leave and I informed him that he should get his ass back because I was not done with him. When I got off my soapbox I dismissed him and he left. He sent his wife in to fire me and pay me off.

We are conditioned to see things the boss's way and thus many of us apply the boss's values to ourselves, our co-workers and everything else around us. Here and there, sometimes hidden from sight, are a few who realize that the boss's line of talk is just a con game. Which is true reality? The idea that the rich capitalists are a superior life form with some divine right to own and profit off the labor of the cursed ones who are damned to a lifetime of hard labor with little to show for it? Or maybe our curse is that we have allowed a class to feed upon us and have convinced us that somehow this is the natural order of things?

There is that old saying: "if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then more than likely it is a duck." What do you call something that is totally dependant upon something else for its existence and does not produce anything useful in return? What feeds upon a host body? You call that a parasite. Now, if something walks like a parasite, looks like a parasite and talks like a parasite, I would image we could call that something a parasite, right? That something is the capitalist boss. Living, breathing, talking parasites; that's what they are, and that is all that they can ever be, and that is how we should treat them.

It matters not if they are small-timers trying to hit it big or the fat cats at the top of the economic ladder; even when they form massive organizations like the WTO, they are still nothing more than useless parasites. This is not some word game by a pissed-off working stiff. It is the truth. The capitalist bosses produce nothing, it is we workers who do the producing for them. All the grand activity of the WTO is nothing more than a spectacle because the WTO produces nothing -- it only deals with the trade of goods produced by us. The truth is that it should be called the World Parasite Organization. There is no dignity in being a parasite, rather the parasite lives at the expense of the host body. The working class is the host body that the capitalist parasites feed off of.

Working folks labor to produce everything of value. Some of that production fulfills people's needs. Some of that production is little more than useless junk that the capitalists dupe people into thinking they need. Some working folks do what which they need to in order to survive, but have little understanding of the system that they are forced to endure. There is dignity in their labor, but they have little dignity in their lives. Some working folks come to understand the economic arrangement and the fact that they produce for economic parasites who live off their labor. Some strong workers struggle with these parasites to improve their conditions, and there is dignity in standing up for themselves. Then there are the fools -- the 100 percent certifiable suckers, Scissorbills, Mr. Blocks -- who kiss the boss's ass, thinking that their interests as slaves is with the slave masters. There ain't no dignity in being a fool.

Down in the local shipyard we regulars have been working for a while. I had been installing lugbody butterfly valves, 13 of them, most were 10" and a few were 16", on two different ships, a real pain-in-the-ass job.

A tote ship came in that was going to be shut down for two days and we had some 4" and 10" pipe to fit on it, working two 10-hour shifts. The regular workers are on the seniority list, there are 8 pipefitters on that list. When the yard needs more workers they call the union hall. For pipefitters, the union will first dispatch metal trades pipefitters, and since there are not many of us metal trades pipefitters around any more they send building trades pipefitters to fill the crew. We call them uptown fitters. There are a lot of differences between fitting pipe in a building or plant and fitting pipe on a ship. Between the tote job and a tidewater boat coming in, there was a need for five extra pipefitters beyond the 8 regular pipefitters.

The first shift mainly set up everything. I did not work the first day of the tote job because I was working on another ship doing a hatch drain job. Their hatch drains had a number of short radius 90s (where the pipe makes an abrupt 90° turn) and no clean-outs. Short radius 90s will be the point where a drain clogs up and you can't get a snake past them. So I cut out all the short radius 90s, in some places I bent long radius 90° bends and other places I was able to use 30° offset bends. At each bend I saddle in a cleanout. Saddling in smaller pipe into a larger pipe is easy, but saddling in the same size pipe into a bend so that the cleanout is in direct line with the pipe after the bend is a pain in the ass. I had to do 8 saddles, so I had a lot of work to do and they did not want to use me to help set up things on the tote ship.

I started working the tote job on the second day. There is an unwritten rule that when you come on to a job that someone else had been working, the person who started the job takes the lead. The person who had been working the 4" pipe was a building trades fitter by the name of Kenny, who I found out later had only worked in a shipyard one time before. He was a real go-getter who was trying to impress the boss because he was hoping to become a regular. His problem was that he was fitting the pipe like it is done in a building, plus he was cutting corners. Most pipefitters will figure out their pipe and then double check it to make sure that it is right. Sure that takes a little longer, but it cuts down on mistakes. Well, he was not doing that and there were mistakes. At one point a pipe came too close to another pipe. In a building that is not such a problem, but everything stretches when the ship is at sea. So he forced one pipe over from the other pipe. Sometimes you have to force things but you really don't want to do that because you are creating a stress point in the pipe. More often than not, that stress point will be at a fitting or a weld and in time that will be the point where you will develop a leak.

On one section of pipe he created a long monster of a pipe by welding sections together out of place. I called that pipe a Frankenstein pipe. They do that a lot in buildings, but in buildings you have more room to rig it and you take your time figuring the damn thing out. On ships, though, you try to give the welder some out of place welds when you can, but you mostly tack and run. In other words, fit up shorter pieces, tack them together in place, and then a welder comes behind you and welds it out. Well that monster pipe was hard as hell to rig up in place and Kenny was off on his figuring. That meant trying to cut and fit the damn thing in place. So in trying to impress the boss with how fast he could fit, the damn fool made the job take longer and made the job harder and more dangerous than it needed to be.

After the tote job I went back on my drain job and the other fitters started the tidewater boat job. I had noticed that Kenny was following the boss around like some puppy dog and I asked some of the regulars about that. They said he was continuously kissing up to the boss and had said that he wanted to become a regular and did not care who he had to stab in the back in order to get what he wanted. That meant we had to keep an eye on this guy.

When the ship went into the drydock the keel coolers had to be removed and tested, and one of them had to be replaced. Keel coolers are fitted on the outside of the shell down under the hull and they are used to chill the cooling water to engines and generators. In order to unbolt the coolers you have to climb into the double bottoms, which are used as ballast tanks. This means that in most cases those tanks are all rusted out. Going into the tanks from the forward end leaves you just enough room to sit up in them. As you move aft the tanks get smaller. You have to climb through the lighting holes. Down in ship tanks, the support stiffeners have holes in them called lighting holes, which let workers crawl through, but also allow the ship to stretch at sea without too much stress on the structure, and if a crack develops it will stop at the hole, that is why they are called lighting holes. Given that the keel coolers are under the engines, that means that the tank stiffeners are closer together and the foundation for the engine protrudes down into the tank, giving you less room. Some of the holes have pipes going through them and those holes you have to squeeze through. There were places where the deck above the tanks was rusted through and water from the engine room was leaking down, so you had water coming down on you from overhead and water you had to crawl and sit in. The tanks were damn hot inside. We have had hot weather here of late and that hot sun on that steel hull made the tanks hotter than it was on the outside. That is about the best description I can give you of those tanks. You need to be in one to truly understand.

I got brought over from the other ship for this keel cooler job because I had done them many times before and I don't mind much working in tanks, that is I don't get claustrophobia.

A lot of people do get claustrophobia when they get into such tanks, even when they have never had it before. The thing to do is not to focus on your miserable surroundings and keep focused on what you are doing. We had four uptown fitters and myself working that job. One fitter gets claustrophobia, so he was the tank watch; another was too large to get into most of the tanks; another could work only a short time in there, on the forward end of the coolers where there was the most room. Then there was Kenny, he would get in there and get all worked up trying to do everything as fast as he could. I guess he was still trying to impress the boss, but he wanted to get out of the tank as soon as possible because it was bothering him. I tried to tell him to take it easy because he was getting himself all hot and irritated and making the job harder than it needed to be. But he would not listen to me.

In the shipyard we workers look after each other. We help one another when needed and cover each other's backs. We share our knowledge. No one knows everything about pipefitting and ships, but we teach each other, and together we have our bases covered. We tend to have our areas that we are better at and if someone has done something more that another, we will ask for their advice. Kenny had his nose up the foreman's ass so far that he had no respect for his co-workers and viewed them as the competition. He was a fool who could not see his true self-interests. To him the union was a means to get where he wanted to be, not a bonding of co-workers.

At one point while we were waiting, he told me his story. I have always been interested in worker's stories. I guess you could call him young -- Kenny was 32 years old, the rest of the pipefitters were in their forties, and a few like me were in our fifties. He told me that his father had worked low-paying unskilled jobs all his life and that his family was always poor. He did not want to be like his father, and claimed he had no respect for his father who to him was just a loser. He did not have the money to go to college so he got into the pipefitting apprenticeship program with the union and wanted to get in a position somewhere for the long term. His way of doing that was to brown nose the boss and try to show the other workers up. I could not get him to understand that his true self-interest was with his co-workers and that the bosses would just use him and throw him away. He was just a fool who had to learn things the hard way.

I had to do most of the work on the aft end of the coolers by myself. That was no big deal to me because, although crawling in and out of there gave me sore muscles, cuts, and bruises on my arms and legs, once in there the atmosphere doesn't bother me. Plus, we get paid by the hour, and I don't like being one of those standing around waiting on the outside.

The cooling water comes into the coolers from 4" pipes coming down from the engine room and you have to unbolt a section of pipe that has a 90° on top with a flange that you unbolt. On the down side of the 90 is a bell reducer that increases the side to 8". On the hull there is a ring that has tapped bolt threads that the flange on the bottom side of the bell reducer bolts to. When you have the top 4" flange and the bottom 8" flange unbolted, you have to remove that section of pipe. The damn thing is heavy and there is no place to hang rigging from so you must remove it by hand. Once that is out, there is a 3" brass pipe coming out of the cooler, the cooling water goes down the piping and into that brass pipe through the cooler and back out the brass pipe on the other side of the cooler. The brass pipe is threaded with a nut on it that bolts the cooler to the hull, which you have to take off. In between the forward and aft ends of the cooler, from which you have taken off the piping and the nut holding the cooler on, you have six 2 1/2 pipes coming up from the haul. You remove the caps, and inside those pipes are all threaded with nuts on them that you have to remove and then the cooler is unbolted. On the outside of the hull we have jacks to lower the cooler down. The cooler is about 15' long and 16" wide. We had to drop one cooler on the port side, which we replaced with a new cooler. We dropped two coolers on the starboard side, which we cleaned up, tested and put back in place. At each point where the cooler is bolted on the outside and on the inside there are large rubbers that compress the cooler to the hull. In putting the coolers back in we place a portapower under each part that we bolt up to compress the rubber. Once the cooler is bolted back up, we have to put the sections of pipe back on.

I tried to tell Kenny how to do that but he would not listen, I was the competition and he wanted to show me up by getting his forward end done before I got my aft end done. I would not get pulled into that self-defeating game and took my time so that I would not get too hot and I would do the job right the first time. Kenny did not bother to look at how the piping fitted. That is about how such fools look at life: they only see what they think is their self-interest, not realizing that everything around them affects them, and thus they go about things blindly. He got the pipe sections in place and tightened them up without looking at them and without using that damn thing between his ears. And he was out of the tank before me.

The pipe sections were not great fit ups. They were off a bit. First you had to pull together the top flange in order to get the cap screws started on the bottom. It was at that point Kenny tightened up his top flanges completely. He did crisscross the tightening of the bolts but he did not check his flanges. A seated flange you do crisscross the tightening of your bolts, but if the flange is not seated right you tighten the bolts where the largest gap is first or you will not be able to close that gap. After you get the bottom bolts in you have to loosen your top bolts and then tighten your bottom flange. The reason is that your top flange is connected to piping that will give a little, but where it is bolted to the hull that ain't going to give a damn thing. Once the bottom was bolted you saw that the top flange was off by a very small amount. If you had tightened the top first the bottom flange would leak. So I took my time and made up my flanges right. We then did an air test on the system and all of Kenny's bottom flanges leaked and one of his top flanges leaked. None of my flanges leaked. I was back on the other ship when they did the air test so the lead man had to go down into the tank and loosen up Kenny's flanges and make them up right.

In the process of working as fast as he could and not allowing his body to fit with the conditions he was working in, Kenny strained his back. I could tell he was hurting and I told him that he should fill out an accident report and go to the doctor. A bad back is not something you want to neglect. Kenny said that he did not want to do that because if he did the boss might not call him back by name next time there was a lot of work. Damn fool, that just plays into the hands of the bosses, for the more that workers try to hide their injuries, the worse off those workers who reveal their injuries will have it.

How this works is that if you work at the shipyard for six months straight you are placed on the seniority list. There is an order for workers on the seniority list with whoever got on the list first on the top and everyone else ordered chronologically. If the boss needs more workers then he can call back by name those who had worked there before and after that it goes to the Metal Trades list and then the Building Trades list. So for Kenny the first step in getting on the seniority list was to become one of the people the boss calls back by name.

So there Kenny was, the dedicated Scissorbill; he tried to get the job done fast to impress the boss, only to have not done the job right and have leaks that made the job last longer and made him look careless in everyone's eyes. He gave himself a back injury by working like a fool. He also alienated his co-workers by brown nosing the boss. And he was laid off four days after we finished the keel coolers. The Scissorbills are only fooling themselves, and the greatest fools there are the fools who are taken in by their own foolishness.

Maybe Kenny did get done before I did, and maybe for a short while he did impress the boss. But did he in fact show me up? Not at all. I don't give a damn about impressing the boss and I am not competing with my co-workers. Who is the fool?

Working people need to stop identifying with the bosses and realize that their fellow workers are the only ones that they have a common interest with. There is dignity in our work and there is dignity is standing up for our common interests.

If it looks like a fool, acts like a fool and talks like a fool, then surely it is a fool. Though I pity the fool, there is no dignity in being a fool.